Author's Notes: Well, I'm fairly certain that I had a totally different story outline in my mind when I started this, but then in my usual fashion I went off to camp and, having failed to write it down, forgot all about it.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy what it's become instead! I just can't get enough of this Jane/Will/Bran angst, it seems . . .
Layers of Thoughts and Images
She dreams of a green witch.
The figure towers erectly above her, glaring harshly at the sand. She feels tiny as a grain of sand at its feet, poor twisted creature, and the sharp wind whips her hair so fiercely against her cheek that she is sure it will draw blood. She clutches a tiny little piece of gold in her fingers, and the green witch extends a limb, reaching for it, reaching, reaching …
Jane wakes with a start to find herself tucked nicely into bed, the faint traces of the sea lingering only in the far corners of her room. And Barney, sprawled at her feet, steady breath raking against the covers.
She rolls over and closes her eyes, trying to banish the sadness that grows in her belly each time she thinks of the poor, wretched thing that smelled of seawater.
She is sixteen by the time she finally convinces Will to kiss her. It's not even done properly, with shy laughter and awkward teeth-bumping. On the contrary, he is graceful and sure in his movements—but Jane can sense something, can sense a tired weariness that makes her pull away.
"Are you all right?" Will asks quietly, grey eyes flicking across her face.
And she thinks: I could marry him, but he won't ever ask me.
The silence stretches long enough that worry starts to etch into Will's features; Jane thinks he must have mistaken her thoughts for regret, and hastily recaptures his mouth. But this time he detaches and looks her in the eyes as he mumbles, "You know, Bran has always fancied you."
Jane rolls her eyes. "Bugger Bran."
Will doesn't answer, but he doesn't push her away this time and Jane tries to believe that his silence means nothing.
She goes to a small, local college and is surprised to find interest in psychology. But this hobby makes Will nervous.
"Fascinating, isn't it, how people can forget their lives? Experts have been saying that sometimes we rework our memories to make them easier to understand." The professor turns to her with an engaging smile, tilting his head to the side. "How do we do this?" He asks rhetorically, and raises his pointer finger in the air. "Dreams. Recurring dreams in particular."
His eyes scan the crowd, moving through them, and Jane feels a shiver creep along her spine. She closes her eyes for a second to picture that green figure from her mind—which she surely made up—and pity surges through her. Poor wretched thing. "How can you tell what they mean?" She asks timidly, hand raised half-heartedly.
Professor Sims smiles again, picking up a book on his desk. "You can't ever truly be sure," he tells her conversationally. "There are countless interpretations. And of course, it all depends on how well your subconscious has hidden the memory. Often we layer images and thoughts on top of our experiences, so that it takes years to decipher the truth."
Later, Jane will relay the lecture to Will. She can't help but notice that he looks away, relieved.
Jane studies her hand with mild interest, and her empty finger. Most of their friends have begun pairing off, marrying and settling down. It used to bother her; everyone thought that she and Will would be first to take the plunge. It just made sense: they'd been together since high school, known each other even longer. Like some sort of match made in heaven.
But Will hasn't proposed, and if Jane is honest with herself, she knows that he won't.
Still, their time together doesn't feel like a waste. She can't imagine why she isn't more concerned; as her mother so deftly puts it, she's not "getting any younger, Jane, isn't it time you started thinking about the future?"
Sometimes Jane wakes in the middle of the night, breath heavy, tears staining her cheeks, mind spinning with images she can't even totally recall. And Will simply looks at her for a moment, eyes sad and calming, and she lets him wrap his arms around her. And there, secured between his chest and his hands, Jane's heart can finally still.
But really, by twenty-five she has to acknowledge a fact that she's avoided for ten years.
Will isn't going anywhere.
It seems his only ambition is to travel, spanning the world several times over (running on God only knows what money) and watching others live their lives. "Isn't time you started living your own?" she asks finally, trying to keep her voice from breaking.
She sees the sadness in his eyes as he tilts his head. "Isn't it time that you started living yours?" He asks mildly. She furrows her brow at him. "Jane," he explains quietly, lovingly, "What are you doing, wasting your time with me? Bran loves you—you know he does. He always has. Always will."
"Are you breaking up with me?" Her voice is quiet, trembling.
"I couldn't ever do that," he answers honestly, looking surprised at the suggestion, and not for the first time she sees that desperate longing in his eyes, as though she is some sort of precious gift he will never receive. "But Jane, Jane . . . can't you see? You could be so much more without me—you could be so much happier if I weren't here to hold you back."
She can do nothing but stare at him.
Ten years, she thinks.
"I'm never going to propose to you," he whispers then, eyes closed and a tortured expression on his face. "I want to marry you, but I can't."
And she knows that he isn't taking the easy way out, isn't forcing the responsibility on her. Will is many things, but never a liar; Jane finds herself wanting to comfort him, to say, I'm sorry it has to be this way. So instead she simply asks, "Why?"
"Because I couldn't love you the way someone else will."
It hurts, but not as much as she had expected.
He comes to their wedding, to hers and Bran's, and he is the best man. Will smiles the whole time, seemingly unconcerned that his first and only girlfriend is married to his best friend.
But that night, lying beside Bran for the first time as his wife, Jane dreams that she is standing beside her husband on a ship, sailing on the clouds, watching Will fade into a speck as he stands alone on a familiar-looking mountain. In the dream, Uncle Merry places his hand on her shoulder, tears on his wrinkled face. Jane thinks: But if I go, Will is all alone forever, and then she wakes up.
Bran's arms are stronger than Will's, but she finds herself missing him just the same.